La retraite – weeks 6 and 7

Life has become very leisurely, so there’s not been a lot of news over the last couple of weeks. I (Helen) think I’ve got used to the fact that we are both retired and that we don’t HAVE to do anything.

The two main things have been starting to sort out all the things we need for being residents, and also the arrival of my (Helen’s) mother. Everything was such a rush in our last few weeks in Nottingham, especially with the upheavals for John’s mother, that we didn’t see very much of my mother, so it’s good that she has been able come out here for three weeks. Every year she says that it will be her last year of being able to come out, and this year it looked as if the car journey would just be too long and tiring. However, thanks to a good friend, Ann,  who gave her a lift to (and will later give her a lift back from) Birmingham airport, she has been able to take a relatively short flight from there to Basle, which is over the mountains from here, about an hour and a half’s drive. So Ruth doesn’t seem to be too exhausted and will be here for her 91st birthday on 9th July. She’s just come in to see what I’m up to (she doesn’t like to miss out on anything) and sends the following message to the nation: “the weather is lovely; Helen and John seem very settled; my greetings to everyone – they’ll all know me, won’t they?”

Using a wheelchair at both airports seemed to make the journey less tiring, so Helen investigated hiring a wheelchair here and discovered that the weekly rate is very cheap. So yesterday we hired one in St Dié, as it means my mother can come out with us for longer without getting tired. She’s adapted to it amazingly fast and seems to enjoy issuing regal commands from a seated position – “just wheel me back to where we were so I can take a photo”.

We were amazed when hiring the wheelchair that we didn’t have to pay the required deposit – they seemed to think Helen looked honest after producing her St Dié library card as evidence of address. Things like that take you by surprise when just round the corner you’ve been fighting bureaucracy.

We set off on the Monday of week 6 for St Dié to transfer our National Insurance sickness benefit into a French benefit, having obtained the necessary English document and having telephoned first to ascertain the required additional documents for English residents. We took in all the required documents, the clerk made phone calls to check that all was in order and everything was sent off.

We later got a letter from Epinal to say that we need to obtain a temporary residence permit first (mind you, in order to get a full residence permit, we need to have the sickness benefit document sorted); also the birth certificate photocopies were considered to be incomplete – this is puzzling since we have copied everything on it and the copy has been certified at a later office as being a full copy. However, a French certificate would apparently have a stamp on the back and Helen was unable to convince our allocated officer by phone that UK certificates don’t have a stamp on the back of the original. This means a trip in to the Departmental headquarters in Epinal once we have a Temporary Residence permit so we can take in the offending English birth certificates. Unfortunately our allocated officer will shortly be going on holiday for a month and no one else is authorised to deal with us.

So we hasten back to St Dié to sort out the temporary residence permit at the Prefecture. The birth and marriage certificates are fine, though they are different to French ones. So can they be translated by an authorised translator (only one off the police / town hall list)? After some explanation it is agreed translations are not necessary as all the information is on the certificate and can be explained. But we need a statement of income, in French, to prove we will not be a burden on the state and a stamped addressed envelope. We’ve now e-mailed our financial advisor for the income statement in French (fictitious figures so we don’t declare too much to the French state as there is a wealth tax…but it will be official enough as it comes from a registered financial company – all part of their service). So, so far we have neither our temporary residence permit or our health service registration card (a credit card with a computer chip holding our details which allows refunds of health service costs to be credited directly to our bank by the state service and the private top-up medical insurance company) and the French holidays, which traditionally seem to occupy most of July and August, started this weekend. Maybe by September we’ll be sorted, but then we’re bound to have over-run some deadlines for registering!

We can’t get any private top-up medical insurance yet as we don’t have our French health service registration card (and private medical insurance in France is only legal for residents if you have it). The French state health service doesn’t pay all medical costs, only a percentage of a nationally agreed tariff e.g. it is 70% of the agreed cost for visiting a doctor – 20 euros (£13) for a surgery visit –the doctor might charge more but you still only get 70% of 20 euros. The rest can be covered by the additional insurance (which is usually paid by employers for those in work). We visit two insurance companies to find out more – not too easy as they don’t have much information –most French know all about the options already! It seems there are various levels of insurance, e.g. you can take out insurance to 100, 130, or 200% of the national tariff to cover those doctors, consultants, hospitals, opticians, dentists, etc. who have higher charges than the national rates. So it seems any savings we might have made by not paying Council Tax are easily going to be eaten up by the private health insurance costs since the quotes we had were £800-£1000 depending on the level of top-up taken!

We were very aware of the start of the French holidays today when we indulged our developing passion for Sunday flea markets. Well, we didn’t notice anything in the morning as we went along to the market at the next village, Saulcy, where they were also having inter-village games (things like running and scrambling over obstacles with a tray of plastic cups full of liquid), as Saulcy can hardly be said to be on the tourist map. This was also where my mother tried out the wheelchair for the first time and so saw the whole of the market, rather than sitting waiting in the car or the refreshment tent. And after that we drove on to a tiny village, Hurbache, on the other side of St Dié, where there was a Fête des Foins (the huge bales of hay as we drove in to the village were a give-away for the translation). Our local farmer has also been busy haymaking around us – (including our fields, without any discussion, which would have been polite now we are in residence). The flea market consisted of one huge stall, where everything was being sold together (I bought a couple of books), and there were also some small stalls with bran tubs and other games. But the main focus was a huge trestle table, beautifully laid out for lunch, which looked a bit like I imagine the old harvest meals. A coach was depositing people and their bags as we left and it looked as if the village and its friends and relations would enjoy itself. Our lunch was nearly as much fun as we came home and took our food upstairs to the sitting room and watched Brazil beat Germany (what shall we do now with no more football to watch?).

After lunch we left my mother reading peacefully on the terrace and set out for a market on the other side of Gerardmer. Gerardmer has always been a very popular French holiday resort (and a skiing resort in winter), and the roads were full of cars. The sun was hot, the sky was blue, lake Gerardmer was a brilliant blue and covered with boats and pedalos – the whole world was out enjoying the first weekend of the holidays – and the roads were full of cars with non-88 (Vosges) number plates! Despite that we had a picturesque drive to a little village flea market, where John bought some decorative glass and a long shoe horn and Helen bought a couple of books (not as high-brow as it sounds – a couple French translations of a certain Capitaine W.E. Johns to add to my small Biggles and Worrals collection.) On the way home we stopped at another small village – the stalls were up both sides of the main street – but fortunately they were clearing away by the time we left. Again there was a lovely village atmosphere (and yes, Helen bought another book – and she’d said she wasn’t going to buy any children’s books in French!)

Next week St Dié starts its programme of walks in the forests and hills around S Die, which should be interesting. On Tuesdays the walks are longer (about 20 km – last all day!), but on Fridays the walks are in the afternoons and about 10km. So that might be quite a sociable activity (for Helen at least –not sure John’s knees, Achilles tendon, etc. are up to it). Helen made a valiant attempt to join in the activities of the Friends of the Museum and Library by going along to a talk on one of the hottest (and most humid) evenings. It was a bit of an unknown entity, the title being “Every object tells a story”, but it turned out to be all about the beautiful books of poetry and art produced by a small press, Aencrages, and it was a very interesting talk. And as Helen was the only member of the audience for a few minutes, the librarian the publisher, and the museum director were forced to welcome her and chat to her (the museum director said he remembered her from my moment of fame as their 400,000th visitor).

For those of you who know the area well, a small aside, again of a bureaucratic nature, re our splendid supermarket, Cora. We thought it would be a good idea to get a loyalty/ credit card, in order to take advantage of various offers. So once again we produced all the documents we’d been told were required and noted on a piece of paper at an earlier visit – only to find that the computer in the end rejected us as we didn’t have a French ID number. Although our passports are perfectly acceptable ID, nothing could be processed without a correct French number! There’s a lot to be sorted out before the EU works at ground level!

And now for something completely different: A tale about “Banana Plugs”. You can’t buy banana plugs in France (used for connecting speakers to amplifiers and leads from amplifiers to speakers). John had wanted some to connect up extra load speakers he’d brought. But it seems banana plugs have been banned by an EU regulation as the pin on the banana plug is the same diameter as the standard pin on a continental mains plug. And there are still two-pin mains sockets around and unshuttered three-pin sockets so it would be easy for anyone to put a banana plug into one of those mains sockets. So they’ve been banned. Next they are going to ban screwdrivers, knitting needles, and anything else with a 4mm diameter rod (or smaller ?) rather than letting the idiots who could stick such things in sockets learn the practical way that it is not the correct thing to put non-mains plugs into mains sockets. But at least you can still import banana plugs from the UK where they are still sold; although you cannot export them commercially, nor any device with banana plug connectors (amplifiers and speakers now have a different connector but which apparently, with a quick bit of fiddling, can often be made to take banana plugs……).

You will gather that the frustrations and the pleasures currently vie with each other, the long spell of good weather means the pleasures are uppermost. We have only to think of the panorama of distant blue mountains, and the shafts of sunlight on the winding roads through the woods this afternoon to be glad that we’re here enjoying it.

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